How creativity and tech could save us from political corruption

by Raquel Harrah


Amid the turmoil caused by the manipulation of big data by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 US election, Adriano Matos and his team at Grey Brasil harnessed data for good. They created a groundbreaking platform that flagged corrupt politicians, following the world’s largest corruption scandal in Brazil.

An investigation launched in Brazil in 2014, codenamed Lava Jato or Car Wash, uncovered a shocking web of corruption that implicated executives at state oil company Petrobras, politicians, and a beloved former president. While Brazil has a long history of corruption, this scandal was different. Brazil’s elite were exposed and held accountable for their corrupt actions, ending an era of impunity.

To prevent large scale corruption scandals like this from happening again, Reclame AQUI, a website for customers to air grievances about products and services, and Grey Brasil partnered together to create a desktop application and campaign called The Colour of Corruption. The application used facial recognition technology to identify politicians involved in corruption, the goal being to encourage citizens to vote for politicians with cleaner track records.  

People could download the application to their desktop and it would highlight a politician’s name in purple in an article if that politician had any records of conviction. The project was based on two major issues—corruption and lack of access to information.

“Although there are some laws about transparency in data from the public sector in Brazil, most of the time it is hard to find the information and usually it isn’t well designed,” says Mauricio Vargas, CEO of Reclame AQUI Institute.

What makes corruption such a tricky issue to tackle is that it inherently is not transparent and lacks a clear definition.

With a robust database pulling public information from court websites, Reclame AQUI and Grey Brasil set out to extend their work to mobile, given that 54 percent of Brazilian adults—up from 15 percent just five years ago — use smartphones. They evolved the desktop platform to a mobile app, coining it the Corruption Detector, and rolled out a campaign to raise awareness before the 2018 Brazilian election.  

The app uses facial recognition software to recognize political candidates’ faces with 98% accuracy. People can take a picture of any politician in Brazil and see conviction records.

“The idea was giving the power back to people,” says Adriano Matos, creative vice president at Grey Brasil, who creatively led the project. What is interesting about this idea is the more the candidates and politicians spend money showing their faces with billboards and ads, the more vulnerable they are. The more they show their faces, the more we drop their masks.”

To date, the app boasts 1.5 million downloads, an impressive number considering many major media outlets wouldn’t promote the app because they were compromised by their relationships with politicians.

While the app was well received by the public and those with clean records, many politicians weren’t thrilled to find themselves identified as corrupt. “We had many politicians try to sue Reclame AQUI. But the fact is, all this data is public. We just organized it and made it visual,” Matos says.


Corruption, a global epidemic

What makes corruption such a tricky issue to tackle is that it inherently is not transparent and lacks a clear definition. Some organizations like Transparency International are attempting to shine a light on global corruption. The Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International highlights perceived levels of public sector corruption. As the map shows, no country is immune to corruption, but the type of corruption can vary from country to country.

“In some places, corruption is acutely felt at the point of service delivery, with an average of nearly 1 in 4 people around the world saying they have paid a bribe to access public services in the last 12 months—a figure which tends to be higher in the ‘global south,’” says Michael Horsby, Communication Officer at Transparency International. “In more economically developed countries, the biggest corruption risks tend to be found in areas like public procurement and political financing.”

A significant barrier to anti-corruption efforts is the institutionalization of corrupt practices by citizens every day.

While corruption in countries like Canada and United States may not be as explicit as corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa or Brazil, the threat to democracy is no less grave.  

The conviction of President Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, in December 2018 in connection to hush-money payments to Trump Tower Moscow has unearthed entrenched corruption within the Trump administration. In a series of tweets in December, President Trump called these payments “private transactions” and therefore made the case that voters were not entitled to know about the payments. But the justification itself suggests corruption according to U.S. law, as it blurs private and public interests.

The increase in conflicts of interest and private interest under the Trump administration conflated with several other factors like undermining independent media has contributed to a declining score on Transparency International’s annual corruption ranking. The U.S. reached its lowest score in seven years this past year. Canada is consistently a top performer on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Transparency International’s ranking, but the country is not immune to corruption.

In 2017, former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum was sentenced to jail for corruption-related charges after being found guilty of pocketing $37,000 in kickbacks.  

The corruption scandal , which sounds more like the plotline of a gangster movie directed by Martin Scorsese than reality, involved a network of engineering and construction firms that conspired with public officials and organized crime to pay kickbacks for receiving large contracts.

While Canadians may not feel corruption as acutely as other countries with weakened governments where corruption tends to flourish, the impact is not inconsequential. Economists at La Presse suggested up to $500 million in public money was misappropriated in Montreal at the height of the construction corruption scandal from 2004 to 2009. Money that could have been allocated to education, a thought that didn’t escape many protesters in 2012 who gathered in opposition of rising tuition fees.  


Why corruption matters

Corruption is a global issue that is not just reserved for the political elite. A significant barrier to anti-corruption efforts is the institutionalization of corrupt practices by citizens every day — this normalizes a culture of corruption, a culture that ultimately led to Operation Car Wash, which has created economic and political problems for Brazil.

“I think the very inconvenient truth of corruption is that politicians are a reflection of their voters. Corruption in Brazil is a reflection of Brazilian society,” Matos says. “There are very small acts of corruption that every Brazilian does in the day-to-day. For example, bribing a policeman at the street not to have a ticket.”

According to the United Nations, corruption costs nations 3.6 trillion dollars annually. It is often at the center of other social issues – poverty, lack of funds for education, public service, and income inequality.  If citizens want to stamp out these pervasive issues, they’ll need to attack the source.


A promising future


A burgeoning youth population, new technology and innovation are creating the conditions for a growing resistance.

On December 12, Transparency International hosted a ceremony to recognize three finalists in a youth video competition called Future Against Corruption. The competition invited young people to record a short video detailing innovative solutions for combating corruption. Over 200 videos were submitted.

“One of the reasons we launched this competition is because we felt like young people are not involved enough in the fight (against) corruption,” says Franziska Dienst, Fundraising Officer at Transparency International. “Young people themselves are forced to pay bribes to receive their high school diplomas or receive better grades or to get a better job. That’s the system that they live in and in some way, they have to comply with it in order to get ahead. But what would be the alternative?”

Change doesn’t just come from policies and laws. Like Grey Brasil and Reclame AQUI, people are using creativity, with little to no resources, to make a big impact.    

Dienst cited an example in India where an expatriate Indian physics professor created fake currency, the zero-rupee note, to shame officials asking for bribes. Notes included calls-to-action like “Eliminate corruption at all levels,” and, “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.” It’s illegal in India to ask for a bribe, but it’s still very common. By creating these zero-rupee notes, corrupt officials asking for bribes were exposed and shamed. The key to success was motivating Indians to take a more active role in confronting corruption.  

Many videos from the competition spoke to a need to educate the public on what corruption looks like and how to stand up to it.  

Winners Siti Julian Tari and Dewi Anggraeni of Indonesia Corruption Watch developed a platform, opentender.net, that identifies public procurement projects, or services or goods purchased through the government, with a high risk of corruption.

“Procurement is really prone to corruption, but in Indonesia almost 50% of corruption is related to the procurement,” Tari says. “That’s why we made this tool, so people can more easily monitor the public procurement in Indonesia.”

Indonesia has long struggled with corruption and more recently, was embroiled in an identity card corruption scandal. Tari and Anggraeni’s online tool flagged the project before the corruption commission launched an investigation. The scam reportedly cost the country $170m and people cannot get their identify cards to get married or to go to the hospital. The head of parliament was arrested in response to the scandal and other parliamentarians have been implicated.

“I know the government has a lot of money, but children still cannot access education and we find holes in the road and street lamps are not working, so it makes me a bit angry,” Tari says. “Where has the money gone?”

Christopher Khajira, a student and activist in Kenya, who was also named a winner in the Future of Corruption competition for his idea of fighting corruption at the grassroots level through community resource centers, recalled similar occurrences of public money disappearing in Africa.

“About 10 million dollars disappeared in thin air,” Khajira says. “Nobody knows where it went but it was meant for the youth for education, which means that most of the youth missed out on these opportunities that could otherwise have changed their lives.”


All the winners agreed that change is on the horizon and remain hopeful for a more corruption-free future.

“I think there’s a shift in mentality. Before, people used to see that these corrupt leaders were able to get money without getting arrested and it was like a status thing,” Khajira says. “But now, the corrupt leaders are becoming unpopular. People are starting to realize that if a corrupt leader takes a million dollars, it’s going to affect them directly.”

While corruption can feel like an entrenched, impenetrable behemoth, the world has reached a unique juncture where globalization, innovation and technology are colliding, offering new solutions to fight corruption.

“We are living in a tech world and tech has an impact in almost everything we do. Kids are learning with tech, cars are being built with tech,” says Matos. “I think it’s more than time for politicians to be impacted by technology.”

The Internet has shown how technology can be a great equalizer and enabler to change society. In the fight against corruption, technology and creativity can be superpowers. And if comics and superhero movies (and recent history) have taught any lesson, it’s that power in the wrong hands can be devastating, but in the right hands, it can save humanity — one algorithm at a time.  


Raquel Harrah is a graduate of E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. She’s written for Profiles in Diversity Journal magazine and Greenwik.org, a new community website, writing on topics like diversity, sustainability and discrimination. Raquel lives in Washington, D.C. with her beloved French bulldog, Fritz.